Travel stories from Albania are hard to come by which makes the Accursed Mountains by Robert Carver a priceless travelogue which takes us on a journey through Albania in 1996 when it was on the point of bloody anarchy.
Carver finds information about Albania hard to come by and hears only stories of thieves and murderers which turn out to not be too far from the truth. In fact, he’s only directly threatened once when two men follow him with knives and Carver manages to hide and outmanoeuvre them, allowing him to tell the story with forgiveable smugness:
‘The first attempt to murder and rob me was a hopelessly amateur affair.’
He discovers though that the Albanians he meets in the mountain villages are scared to travel and with good reason. Buses are routinely robbed by police with sub-machine guns during the day and by bandits at night. The thieves, whether unformed or not, are known to have no hesitation in gunning down the entire bus and the passengers are sometimes requited to give up even their clothes. Vengeance is swift when the identity of the thieves is known however and Carver is told one story of a policeman’s family who burned to death when his home was tracked down.
Carver is able to travel safely at least some of the time as whenever he is befriended by an Albanian or offered hospitality then any attack on him would be an attack on his host and a resulting blood feud would ensue – not something that any Albanian takes lightly. Which is not to say that blood feuds were rare – in the mountains of the north almost everyone is involved in a war with other clans. Carver learns that the town doctor recently left for a better job and before he did so he blew up an enemy’s apartment with landmines, killing everyone inside.
The stories of casual violence that Carver encounters in Albania are breathtaking. Albanian thieves are generally required to go abroad to break into homes because they know that Albanian homes are well-guarded and, if caught, he can reasonable expect to have his nose and ears cut off. Women, as always, bear the brunt of the country’s violence and are routinely beaten by their men and absolutely expect to be raped if left alone with any Albanian male.
I’ve been to Albania and didn’t see any of this but Albania in 1996 was quite a different place; people worked for a couple of dollars a day, the government had yet to bankrupt itself in a pyramid scheme, and there were immense amounts of weapons in circulation that had been stolen from the army when the communist regime collapsed. Many of the stories in The Accursed Mountains probably hold water to the present day